Accountability

Published — June 10, 2010 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

White House visitor log too big for some spreadsheets

Introduction

The White House pledged to “increase governmental transparency” by publishing its visitor access records but the downloadable database may be too large for many users’ personal computers to handle.

The database, which contains entries beginning in September 2009, reveals that the White House regularly receives more than 100 visitors per day. Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey visited the White House three times in 2009, for example, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is listed seven times, most recently on Dec. 15 for a holiday reception.

When the Center for Public Integrity downloaded the data from the White House website, the larger-than-100 MB file could not be opened in Microsoft Excel 2003 because the file contained too much data. Opening it in Microsoft Word resulted in a document that was 32,585 pages long with unsortable data. That means if a user wanted to search for White House visitors on a given day, for example, he or she faces the daunting task of having to repeatedly search for that date within the Word document, which often, but not uniformly, arranges entries alphabetically by last name.

However, computers equipped with the newer 2007 version of Office can access the data in Excel.

Thomas Fitton, president of Judicial Watch said the database should be more user-friendly. Many users would likely want to search the visitor database by date or event, not by name, he said. ”It makes useful analysis difficult, it serves to hide information, practically speaking,” he said. “Unless you know who to look for, you’re really not going to be able to find [what you are looking for].”

“That passes for transparency, and it’s not transparency,” he said.

The White House makes the visitor data available online 90 to 120 days after it is collected. However, it does not release records of personal visits to the Obama and Biden families, or those records it says are “related to a small group of particularly sensitive meetings (e.g., visits of potential Supreme Court nominees).”

Fitton and other critics say all visitor names should be disclosed.

“This White House seems to believe that dumping a huge amount of data will distract the public from the unprecedented lack of accountability and transparency under law,” Fitton said. “This White House essentially says, ‘we’ll disclose all the visitors except the visitors we don’t want to disclose.’ ”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the visitor log’s size and manageability.

ABOUT THE DATA

What: White House Visitor Records

Where: White House website

Availability: Online database and 114.5 MB downloadable database

Format: Index of visitors since Sept. 15, 2009

Usability: Downloadable version too large for Excel 2003 version. Records from Jan. 20 to Sept. 15, 2009 must be requested via The White House

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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